Category Archives: Education

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 9, 2017

I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?

All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today.  I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.

I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.

It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.

I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.

Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 5, 2017

Photo on 12-5-17 at 4.01 PM

And now for something completely different.

I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.

Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.

I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.

My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.

My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.

It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.

And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 4, 2017

Photo on 12-4-17 at 7.26 PM

It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.

I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.

But many will not.

Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.

I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.

I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.

At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.

All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.

 

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: November 29, 2017

Photo on 8-21-13 at 11.50 AM

This is an old picture of me, but appropriate today, I think.

I am feeling under the weather. But I am not so far gone as to have to call in sick. I need to keep resting, continue with my abstinence from adult beverages for a couple more days, try not to worry.

I got some paperwork from the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System, a request for benefit estimates for a possible “ultimate” year, which, possibly, might be next year, hence, the title of this blog series. Even though the years-of-experience ticker on the member website says I won’t be eligible until July of 2020, next year will most def be my 30th year as a public servant in our glorious school system, in one district, in one school the entire time. So I’m a little confused. Because I’ve only been thinking about it in the last couple of years, and only until recently somewhat seriously, I realize there are things I don’t understand.  For example, I don’t know what it means to “buy back” months or years of experience. All I know about that right now is that doing such a thing, “buying back,” would allow me to retire when it seems appropriate that I be able to–after 30 years. I don’t know exactly what or why I’d be “buying back.” And I have no idea how that would influence my bottom line–so I’ve got some work to do. I’m going to fill out this form and ship it off and see what happens.

I’m not ready to stop working. I’m not ready to stop teaching, even. But I think I will be ready after 30 years to at least step away from the high school classroom, or at least, to step back for another perspective, a perspective that is not responsible for all 170 to 200 kids that stream through that classroom door on a quasi-daily basis. I’m gaming to work with adults, or, to work with kids in a completely different way, a way that does not include grading them. You know, if I didn’t have to GRADE human beings and their intellectual output, I could work another decade–maybe. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Teaching is hard. I’ve made to-do lists that were pages long. I did that today. I’ve had this image bouncing around in my head since our last day of staff development right after those conferences I wrote about last time, the image of juggling plates. So today I made a list, not so much a to-do list, but a list of various plates I’m currently juggling. Wanna see?

I am juggling the plates of what seems like a half a dozen new school-wide improvement initiatives: 10/10 attendance, hall sweeps, notebook checks, guardian angels, the Danielson framework, student growth goals and the resultant necessity of gathering data, professional learning cohorts or communities or whatever that letter stands for, and affinity groups, teaching for equity and justice.

I am juggling the plates of 50 essays about a poem by Seamus Heaney, 100 quest narratives and their accompanying reflections, a few dozen late or incomplete final assessments on To Kill A Mockingbird, two letters of recommendation, the supervision of an extended essay on Beowulf from an IB diploma candidate, and some posters featuring the inner workings of the mind of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. And I am juggling the plate of a commitment to do work at work and not at home.

I am juggling the plate of a thousand and one meetings: one yesterday across town that I missed, one this morning, one this afternoon, one this evening that I missed, and one tomorrow morning. And while I’m juggling the meeting plates I do not claim that any of these plates should not be in the air, ad nothing to my juggling endeavors, are worthless or meaningless. No, they are all necessary plates to juggle, important plates to juggle, only impossible, with the student work plates and the school improvement plates, impossible to keep in the air.

So I am feeling under the weather. I’m taking medication for high blood pressure. I am writing this and listening to groovy music by George Harrison’s son, Dhani. I am working out some demons. I am trying to put down some of these plates. I am trying to envision a day when I can continue to do meaningful, life-giving work without the feeling that I am, in the words of an old teacher-ed professor of mine, merely an intellectual worker bee. I have sent in an application for a facilitator training program around Courage and Renewal work, which you can read about elsewhere in my blog archives. And I am sending a form to the people at PERS. The future looks bright, I want to say, despite the current darkness. And despite the plate juggling. It’s dangerous but joyous work, this teaching and aging. Onward!

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: November 2, 2017

building1

apropos of nothing: the little red school house

It’s parent/teacher conference day (yippee!), wherein we teachers sit for 7 hours in uncomfortable chairs in front of uncomfortable cafeteria benches in the commons while parent after parent, sometimes with students in tow, line up to have short, five-minute, uncomfortable conversations with us.

It’s not as bad as all that.  Not all these conversations are uncomfortable. Many of them are downright pleasant, not because all these folks are taking the bad news so well, but because most of the news for the folks who actually show up is not bad, but good. Your child is doing phenomenally well, just swimmingly, absolutely engaged and present, a leader, an inquisitive, caring, thoughtful soul. So, the discomfort, then, is not about saying nice things to people about their kids, but about the fact that you rarely ever see the parents you need to see, and when you do, you understand why the little person is struggling and you are not always hopeful about having an advocate at home. Or, the discomfort comes out of the pure sadness, sometimes the tragedy of the situation: divorces, illnesses both physical or emotional, estrangements on either side or both, or precarious living situations. Sometimes you’re faced with the pure helplessness of parents–they don’t know what to do; they’re at their wits end; they’ve tried everything. And sometimes you have very little in the way of substantive help that you can offer. Today I end up nodding a lot. Trying to be present and attentive. That’s the best I can do sometimes.

The enthusiasm of the teacher sitting next to me is off the rails. She’s having a party over there with everyone who visits. I’m having some performance anxiety. She’ll lose steam after the first three hours or so.

Yep, she’s already taken it down a few notches and we compare some notes.

When there is a lull, teachers wander.

A math teacher wanders over to my table to ask my opinion on a thing, to get some perspective on an appropriate response to a student who’s earning a C from him and A’s from all of her other teachers. He’s got this.

Another math teacher wanders by with some music trivia: given this lyric, can you name the song? I vaguely recognize the lyric. Cannot name that tune. It turns out to be “Electric Avenue.” Later on, he tries me again with “the willow turns its back on inclement weather.” It takes me a while, but I get it: Paul McCartney and Wings, “Just a Little Luck.” One of my teacher friends brought me some candy, a bite sized Snickers, and my favorite, a bite sized Twix. I love her.

Today, it’s slow. As of this writing, it’s 3:51, almost four hours in, and I have seen 20 families. I have 158 students on my roster. It may be the calm before the storm. Watch, this evening, when we come back at 5:15 from dinner break, it will be a barrage. I’ll have to remember to keep breathing. I’ll have trouble after a while forming words with my mouth.

Our administrators treat us to a pizza dinner between 4:30 and 5:15.  Unfortunately, I’m kind of ashamed to say, this week has been a kind of pizzapalooza; Monday night and Wednesday night, pizza was on the menu and I just cannot eat another slice. I’ve got a salad.

And then it’s back to my uncomfortable chair in front of an uncomfortable bench to have uncomfortable conversations while chipping away at this blog entry. Shouldn’t I be using the minutes of free time in between visits to do some grading?

This is a fair question.

In response, I would say that yesterday I was in my classroom from 8 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon grading student notebooks. I am resting. Those other piles will still be there on Monday, I am almost certain. And after those piles are gone, I’m sure, there will be another pile.

It’s 6:10. Things are beginning to blur, and yet, the barrage I half expected has not arrived. I’m still able to form words with my mouth and I am breathing in a relaxed manner more or less. The choir teacher and I spoke together over pizza and salad about the way that the online gradebook has made it less necessary for parents and guardians to visit their kids’ teachers in the flesh. At any moment, as long as they have the internet or a smartphone, they can check on grades. They can avoid those pesky lines and the uncomfortable chairs and benches and the uncomfortable conversations. Internet 1. Humans 0.

It’s 6:45. 45 minutes to go, but who’s counting? I’m getting up from my table and pacing back and forth. I’m wandering. I wander over to Beth’s table, our most beloved and steadfast substitute in the history of history, and she’s there now because she taught most of the first quarter for the disappearing English teacher until another teacher could be found and hired and who is not with Beth now because she’s not yet at the end of her obligation with her previous job. So Beth and I talked about development, how they’re leveling all the trees that used to shade her back yard to make way for a massive convalescent center. Look on the bright side, I said. Without shade, your entire back yard can be a vegetable garden, maybe even a community garden. We’ll have more cucumbers and peppers and other stuff that comes up from dirt and I’ll come over and pick things out of your garden. Because I’m in your community.

I wander back to my station and stand around some more. The vice principal makes an announcement that there are only 10 minutes left before the evening’s over. The commons is a ghost town, a ghost town populated by tired teachers packing up their stuff, and some ghosts. Ghosts of parents and kids from years and years of conferences, lingering, questioning in perpetuity in that worried way: How are we doing? What can I do? What can he do? What should she do? They’re all good kids and we try to be good parents and teachers. We’re doing our best, always, at least, doing our best. Thank you and good night.

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 20, 2017


October 11th of last week was Oregon’s official teacher in-service day. In our school district, the day is unofficial, in that it’s no longer a paid work day. Somehow during negotiations that took place more than a decade ago now, the paid in-service day was bargained away in exchange for some other mysterious but beneficial thing. We still have the day off, but my sense is that most of the teachers in my school, and in my district, are not in-servicing themselves. It’s a three-day weekend, for crying out loud.

I got my haircut on teacher in-service day. And I shopped for new music.

But here I am, a week later, at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island with the Center for Courage and Renewal, on retreat for four days, taking two professional leave days and soul-sacrificing an entire weekend, officially in-servicing myself in the mysterious ways of what has come to be called by all its practitioners: Courage Work.

The work, inspired by the writer Parker J. Palmer and his book The Courage to Teach, began as a program for the professional and personal renewal of teachers. Over the last 15 years or so, the philosophies and strategies of that work have expanded exponentially and now include other professional groups: people in leadership roles, clergy, mental health professionals, health care professionals, etc.

So, I have joined 33 strangers here on this island, 29 participants and a leadership team of 4 facilitators, coming from all over the country, from Canada and from England, to delve deeper into this practice and to begin exploring the idea and possibility of moving into this work on a professional level. The Gateway Retreat, as this one is named, is designed specifically for people who have some significant experience already with Courage Work and who are thinking about a training program to become facilitators. That would be me. I am one of those people.

It is notoriously difficult to quickly describe to someone what it is exactly that we do here. For teachers, it’s not about classroom practice (but it could be), it’s not about raising test scores (but it could be), it’s not about curriculum development (but it could be), it’s not about professional relationships (but it could be). You get the picture. For a participant at a retreat of this kind, it is ABOUT whatever you need it to be about. Right now, you’re not thinking about teaching, instead, you’ve just put one of your parents in a nursing home; or you’re going through a divorce; or you’re choosing a subject for your next painting; or you find yourself unable to paint at all. Your life stuff becomes central—because your life stuff cannot help but influence and color and shape your profession and your work in that profession. Primarily, this retreat is about YOU and the way in which your identity intersects with your life’s work: the coming together of soul and role. Yes, we’re doing soul work. Sssshh. It’s a solitary endeavor—but here it absolutely requires community. We’re not all off gazing at our shoes. We are looking into mirrors. We are listening deeply. We are creating what is called Circles of Trust.

And the result? The magic word here is discernment. I find swirling around this work a number of other magic words as well: Clarity. Consciousness. Integrity. Authenticity. Silence. Storytelling. Solitude. Community. Paradox. And concerning these last three, my favorite and to me the most important paradox of Courage Work: that only in community can we find true solitude—but it has to be a community that values and nurtures that solitude, that welcomes and invites the soul. Most of our communities don’t do this. They need to. They must. So much depends upon it. This, I’ve found, again and again since I first came to it in 2000, is a good place to start.

We were thinking about the word SOUL this morning, and reflecting on Parker Palmer’s metaphor that the soul is like a wild animal: it’s strong, it’s mysterious, it’s resourceful, its orientation is always toward survival—but if you want to see it, you don’t run through the forest shouting. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve got to be respectful. And in one of these moments, two deer came right up to the windows of our meeting place. They were massive and beautiful and they looked into our windows to say hey, and then they were gone.

We ask a lot of open, honest questions of ourselves and others. As of this writing, we’re only half way through the retreat, but here’s a sampling:

  • What are you listening for in your life right now?
  • What, if anything, do you need to let go of?
  • What signs of renewal do you see in your life?
  • What’s the difference between an ego story and a soul story? What’s a story from your life you can tell in two ways—as a story of ego and as a story of soul?
  • After reading from John Lewis’ Walking in the Wind: What is your experience in a societal storm among those most like you and across lines of difference?
  • What’s it like for you standing inside of a tragic gap, that distance between what is possible and what is a reality?

We reflect, in writing or in silence. We make art. We read poems together—not to study, as one would do in an English class, but to explore as what we call “a third thing”—some kind of language event (usually a poem but not always) that serves as a springboard for personal inquiry or reflection on the kinds of questions like those above. It’s a medium or a visiting voice between facilitator and community, a third thing, a tool to elicit deep inquiry from deep places. This is no place for a formalist critic, an English teacher habit that I find easy to jettison in this space.

While in session, we don’t talk to each other. We don’t discuss. There’s no give-or-take, back-and-forth. The impulse to argue or connect or add to or comment on is in perpetual check. Instead, we speak into the circle and listen carefully. In this way, it is unlike the kind of talk we do everywhere else in the world and especially in academics. In this way, each voice has a space, each voice is heard, each voice is welcome. And silences are intentional and weighty, never uncomfortable.

Saturday, we will prepare for Clearness Committees, a central component of a Courage Retreat in which five or six individuals help a single individual toward discernment on a problem or issue by doing nothing but asking honest, open questions for a full two and a half hours. A potentially life/mind altering experience and gift for both the individual with the issue and the people lucky enough to be able to share this deeply in someone else’s soul story.

This, in a nutshell, has been an attempt to describe what it is exactly that we do here.

Here are my central questions for this weekend:

How can I bring this back into my school community?

Is this truly my calling now?

And to answer your lingering question (perhaps) about how this work is possible for a room full of strangers, I call your attention to exhibits A and B: The touchstones of The Circle of Trust and The Five Habits of Heart. Good night and take care.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 11, 2017

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Panic at the Disco, I Mean, Schoolhouse

The year is cooking right along, cooking so vigorously along, in fact, that this is only my second entry in this new series I’m calling a Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year. Yes, the year is cooking right along, interrupted briefly on only two occasions and constantly punctuated by a third. We took a brief respite for an hour and a half a couple of weeks ago for a bomb threat evacuation, today, we administered the PSAT to all our sophomores, and this fall, we have experienced the phenomena of a missing English teacher. The three events are unrelated, but worth noting together in this moment because . . . well, because I’m finding an opportunity to breathe and reflect just now for the first time in more than a month, and because these three items bubble to the surface of my teacher brain first, followed closely by the grading and planning I still need to do for tomorrow.

Yeah, we had a bomb threat. At first, we thought it was a false alarm, having done a lock-down/lock-out drill the day before and having already experienced the obligatory monthly fire drill, but as they evacuated us, told us to keep moving away from the building almost all the way up the hill to the road, and then redirected us back around the school and into the grandstands at the football field around the police vehicles already in the lot, we realized that this was no accident and it was no drill. It started to rain. We were outside for about an hour in the rain. A few kids were rattled by the experience, but not many. Teachers and administrators seemed pretty chill. They pumped music into the grandstands inspiring a spontaneous dance party while we waited. It appeared that most kids were having a great time not being in their classes. And from the photos it looks like teachers were none the worse for wear either. Turns out, no bomb. No danger. We all piled back inside the schoolhouse to resume the teaching and learning. On that same day, I acquired a gift to my classroom:

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The Harvard Classics, Five-Foot Shelf of Books, all 50 volumes, pristinely preserved and well cared for, late edition, circa 1965. Now I have Cicero, Plato, Pliny the Elder, The Imitation of Christ, and the complete poems of Robert Burns in my classroom library! Now that’s da bomb. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. There has been no news in the last couple of weeks about whether or not they caught the prankster, not the one who gifted me the books but the one who called in the bomb threat that precipitated the arrival of my books.

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These Teachers Are Also Freaked Out

Today, things came to a screeching halt one more time as we administered the PSAT to every sophomore in our school who was brave enough to show up. Most of them were brave enough, I’d say. In the group of 25 I helped to proctor, only 3 were absent. Last year on this day or a day or two before, some fool accidentally delivered test booklets too early, thus, breaking the rules of the test, thus, getting the entire school suspended or prohibited from administering the test. I wrote a poem about that last year. We redeemed ourselves this year, though, as no rules were broken and it appears the testing went off without a hitch. I am aware of no hitches.

Standardized tests. I hate them. Generally speaking, I’m against them, but as I am a kind of “arm of the state,” I must play along, and I play along so far as to encourage kids to attend, and I say, to those for whom these kinds of things matter, that the more opportunities they get to take the practice (studies show), the better they will do when the real one comes around: hence, the state of Oregon spending $$$$$$$ to make sure all sophomores in the state get this opportunity. It’s kind of an icky feeling, but at least I’m not lying.

And finally, at the end of an English Department meeting held in the very last hour of the day to talk about course options for seniors who currently, as it appears to most of us, lack options, we long at last had a conversation about an elephant that’s been in the room with us from the very first day of our teacher preparation week before the first day of school. One of our colleagues had gone missing.

No, he’s not a missing person, per se; he was not a victim of foul play; he just didn’t show up for work. Most of us know practically nothing except for that there was some kind of conflict that needed resolution. Almost completely in the dark, we were. We do know that finally, after a long month of a substitute and then a week and a half of a substitute for the substitute, our admin team was finally able to hire a new English teacher. She will join us on Monday and there will be much rejoicing. But at the end of this meeting, one of my dear, esteemed colleagues said, Can we have some closure here about this disappearing teacher? And so we spontaneously had some closure. We vented. We celebrated. We shared a memory or two, some fond, some not so much. We realized how much history we shared with this guy and with each other. There was some love in the room. We promised to have a drink later as a goodbye ritual for our teacher colleague who has disappeared. What a long, strange trip it’s been: month two of an English teacher’s penultimate year.

 

 

 

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